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March 14, 2004 - Blix speaks out, as does Lord Hutton, in his way...

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Published this week: 

Disarming Iraq

by Hans Blix

Pantheon, 285 pp., $24.00


The Report of the Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr. David Kelly, CMG

by Lord Hutton

Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 740 pp., 70.00

Significant reviews?  Michael Ignatieff reviews the Blix book in the Los Angeles Times (March 14) and Brian Urquhart reviews both in the New York Review of Books (Volume 51, Number 5, March 25, 2004)


Ignatieff makes some salient points –


Hans Blix was the kind of United Nations diplomat Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald L. Rumsfeld loved to hate.  As the head of the U.N. weapons inspectors, he was the cautious Swede who refused to either confirm or deny that there were weapons of mass destruction in the frantic months leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  When Blix said the weapons hadn't turned up, Rumsfeld quipped, "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."  Blix stood his ground insisting that the "absence of evidence" should not be spun into proof of concealment.  Cheney took Blix's refusal to support the American line as proof of what he had been saying all along, that it was a mistake for the United States to go for inspections in the first place.

Now that U.S. weapons inspector David Kay and the American inspection teams have also failed to find any evidence of such weapons, Blix, in retirement in Sweden, has published a memoir that says, in effect, "I told you so." Were it not so even-tempered, judicious and ironic in tone, "Disarming Iraq" could be subtitled "Blix's Revenge."


So the book is, apparently, not very heated.  It’s more ironic and detached than angry.  Blix is Swedish, after all.

Ignatieff suggests that once you read this “you will come away ever more indignant that the world's most powerful intelligence services allowed their political bosses to turn a distant threat into an imminent danger.”  And he says the book may also leave you angry at the way in which the administration trashed Blix and his inspectors. 


But overall he finds the book more than a rant –

Although Blix's book will be ransacked by both sides in the still-bitter argument about the war, he makes a case that is too complex to pigeonhole into either side of the debate.  He refuses to accuse President Bush or Prime Minister Tony Blair of deliberately lying or even of bad faith since, like them, he shared the widely held view in 2002 that Saddam had something to hide.  He grants, as many opponents of the war do not, that without deployment of U.S. forces, "Iraq would probably not have accepted a resumption of inspections."  He also disagrees that the "U.S. wanted the inspections to fail," arguing, on the contrary, that the administration "urged us to expand them very fast and to conduct them 'aggressively.'"  Nor does he think the administration planned the war after Sept. 11 and used the weapons issue as a pretext.

Where Blix faults the administration is on timing.  If the inspectors had been given more time — until July 2003 — and had continued to meet resistance, Blix is reasonably sure the Security Council would have authorized armed action, and the United States would have gone to war with the world on its side.  Bush thus failed to rein in the military rush to war until the diplomatic offensive and the inspections process had created a global consensus behind American action.


Oh.  Just bad timing?  But there were no weapons of mass destruction.  Curious.

Ignatieff does cover how, as the weapons failed to show up, Blix kept asking himself why German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Blair and Powell remained so sure that they would be found.  The French intelligence services apparently told Blix that Hussein had weapons, but when Blix met Jacques Chirac on Jan. 17 — around the time Chirac decided to veto the use of force — the French president dismissed his own intelligence services with the remark that there was no "serious evidence" of weapons.  When asked why all the Western intelligence services seemed to agree there was a threat, Chirac said dismissively, "They sometimes intoxicate each other."


And that may be the whole problem.

Ignatieff also notes that when Colin Powell made the administration's case for war in front of the Security Council, Blix realized that his inspectors had already been to the sites he named and had found nothing.   It seems Blix concludes: "Colin Powell had been charged with the thankless task of hauling out the smoking guns that in January were said to be irrelevant and that after March, turned out to be non-existent."


Damn.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?




The Brian Urquhart review is quite long and detailed but also pointed.


He opens with this:


The first four years of the twenty-first century have produced enough strange and unsettling developments to haunt a far longer period.  They include the September 11 attacks and widespread terrorism by suicide bombing; the descent into savage despair of that wellspring of hatred and violence, the Israeli–Palestinian problem; the opening of a dangerous gulf of misunderstanding between the United States and much of the rest of the world; the growing, and terrifying, threat of nuclear proliferation; and the proclamation by the United States of the policy of preventive and preemptive war and at least one questionable experiment with it.  The relative optimism that attended the beginning of the century has largely evaporated.


That the actual threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was, as it turns out, flagrantly misrepresented continues to preoccupy the Western press and to erode the reputations of several Western leaders.  The two books under review are both retrospective studies of aspects of this complex subject, the one a memoir of the attempt to deal with the Iraqi threat by inspection and disarmament, the other an inquiry into a single tragic episode that transfixed the United Kingdom and threatened the career of Prime Minister Tony Blair.  Both books raise important questions about the conduct of national as well as international affairs in the future.


Yep, there are questions of conduct.


But Blix was in a real pickle:


Blix was aware from the beginning that he was caught in a paradoxical situation.  The US buildup was undoubtedly the reason why Saddam Hussein agreed to let the inspectors return on September 16, 2002.  But by the time the inspectors could actually start work, the beginning of the hot season in Iraq—and the presumed deadline for starting military operations—would be only four months away and would put an impossible time limit on their mission, which might provide an alternative to military action.  Sometimes Blix could not avoid the suspicion that UNMOVIC's work was intended largely to fill in the time until the military buildup was complete; the unfinished work of his inspectors would then be used—as in fact it was—as the pretext for military action.


The comments of leaders in Washington were not reassuring.  Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld lost no opportunity to say that UNMOVIC was useless.  Rumsfeld was quoted as saying that "things have been found [in Iraq] not by discovery, but through defectors."  The chief witness for this simplistic statement was, ironically, Hussein Kamal, Saddam's son-in-law, who had defected in 1995 and had told his interrogators that he had ordered the destruction of all Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in 1991.  The belatedly discovered truth of Hussein Kamal's assertion became one of Blix's main problems, because the Iraqis had not kept records of the 1991 destruction of WMD stocks; the stocks could not be found by the inspectors since they no longer existed; and the 12,000-page Iraqi declaration to the Security Council in December 2002 that there were no longer any weapons did not describe the stocks or their destruction, and was therefore denounced as incomplete and duplicitous.


If further proof of antipathy to UNMOVIC was needed, The Washington Post reported that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had requested a CIA investigation of Blix's performance at IAEA and had "hit the ceiling" when nothing could be found to undermine Blix and the inspection program.  According to the Post, Wolfowitz allegedly feared that the inspections could "torpedo" plans for military action against Saddam Hussein.


Yep.  Most uncomfortable. 


Well, the bulk of the review is a narrative of events – as the reviewer notes them through the Blix narrative.  We’ve been there.  It’s a sad story.


Of Blix and this book he concludes:


But then, of course, we must remember Paul Wolfowitz's statement to Vanity Fair that the WMDs were just the most convenient "bureaucratic" reason for selling the war to the public.  The question that has gone unasked since the US case for war has been exposed as lacking in evidence is what would have happened if the inspectors had continued their work and if UNMOVIC had stayed on indefinitely in Iraq.  It is hard to believe that this would have had no effect on the Iraqi regime.


The proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is now one of the world's most frightening concerns.  Blix's book shows just how valuable well-run international inspections, backed by international political, economic and, if necessary, military pressure, can be.


Can be?  Such inspections “could be” effective if one actually wanted them.  It seems we didn’t.


It seems Hans Blix, in looking for reasons for the monumental intelligence failure over the Iraqi WMDs, writes that it was a question of "We know the answers; give us the intelligence to support those answers."  


Nothing could have happened any other way than the way it happened.


Then there is the Hutton Report, in which Lord Hutton, a seventy-two-year-old appeals court justice, describes a “personal tragedy” that resulted from these political fantasies about Iraq's alleged weapons.


Of that?


Appearing at the same time as David Kay's devastating "We were all wrong" statement to the US Congress, Hutton's report could have destroyed the career of Tony Blair, who appointed Hutton to make it.  When it completely exonerated him from lying to the public and harshly took the BBC to task, many people in England, not surprisingly, cried whitewash.  It is necessary to read the 740 pages of the report—no hardship, incidentally—to make a reasonable judgment on its treatment of its most controversial themes, the reporting and other conduct of the BBC concerning the question whether the British government unduly pressured the intelligence agencies.


And just what would that judgment be?


Well Urquhart finds Hutton “courteous but relentless, meticulous and elegant in his determination to establish the truth about Kelly's death as far as possible, and he is articulate, almost to the point of caricature, in his conclusions.”


An example from the Hutton report?


The term "sexed-up" is a slang expression, the meaning of which lacks clarity in the context of a discussion of the dossier.  It is capable of two different meanings.  It could mean that the dossier was embellished with items of intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable to make the case against Saddam Hussein stronger, or it could mean that whilst the intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam Hussein as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted.  If the term is used in this latter sense then, because of the drafting suggestions made by 10 Downing Street for the purpose of making a strong case against Saddam Hussein, it could be said that the Government "sexed-up" the dossier.


However, having regard to the other allegations made in Mr. Gilligan's broadcasts of 29 May, I consider that those who heard the broadcasts would have understood the allegations of "sexing-up" to be used in the first sense which I have described, namely that the Government ordered that the dossier be embellished with false or unreliable intelligence. 


...Therefore, in the context of Mr. Gilligan's broadcasts, I [Lord Hutton] consider that the allegation that the Government ordered the dossier to be "sexed-up" was unfounded.


Damn, that’s British!


As for David Kelly, he was, as you recall, a scientist specializing in chemical and biological weapons and had a distinguished career in the British Ministry of Defense and as a UN inspector in Iraq in the 1990s.  He had also worked in Iraq periodically after the occupation in 2003, and when he committed suicide he was due to return to Baghdad in a few days.  He said some things to Andrew Gilligan of the BBC.  The BBC reported what he said.  And he killed himself.


Well he shouldn’t have talked.


In talking with Gilligan, Kelly had committed two serious offenses against the ministry's regulations - having an unauthorized meeting with a journalist and discussing intelligence matters with a journalist.  His ministry superiors pointed this out, and over the next few days they realized that Kelly must have been the main source for Gilligan's story.  They did not publicly name him, however, but, after much ministerial discussion, announced that a Ministry of Defense official had come forward and admitted that he had had a conversation with Gilligan.  The press embarked on a frantic hunt to identify this person.  The government, already faced with a parliamentary inquiry into the origins of the war, was afraid of being accused of a cover-up and, after more top-level meetings that at times included the prime minister, it was announced that if a journalist guessed the right name, the Ministry of Defense would confirm it.  The Financial Times won this competition.


Kelly, on the advice of the ministry, quickly left his house in Oxfordshire for an undisclosed destination, accompanied by his wife. (The details of Kelly's journeying, his state of mind, and his communications with the ministry and others are meticulously and poignantly described in Hutton's report.)  But he was forced to resurface two days later by the demand that he appear before the parliamentary committee inquiring into the origins of the war.  For a very private man, this was an upsetting experience.  (Astonishingly, Andrew Gilligan, who later admitted he acted improperly, had actually briefed one of the committee members on what to ask Kelly.)  The committee's proceedings were nationally televised, and some of its members, as often happens when politicians are before TV cameras, were outspoken inquisitors.  Andrew MacKinlay, a Labour MP told Kelly, "I reckon you are chaff; you have been thrown up to divert our probing. Have you ever felt like a fall-guy?  You have been set up, have you not?"  Hutton refrains from comment on such behavior as being within the jurisdiction of Parliament, but he notes pointedly that another parliamentary committee is now reviewing the workings of parliamentary select committees.


Kelly was evidently deeply humiliated.  He may also have been uneasy that he had not fully disclosed to the committee his contacts with two other BBC correspondents.  To make matters worse, members of Parliament were asking whether he had infringed the rules and regulations of the Ministry of Defense and about possible disciplinary action.


Yes quite a mess.


As for the Hutton hearing about all this, we find Hutton gives his views on many things, but his two most important conclusions concern the behavior of the government, including Blair and the civil servants and experts involved, and the behavior of the BBC.


After one has read Hutton's immensely detailed report, his harsh judgment of the BBC is less surprising.  In response to Downing Street's demands for withdrawal and apology, the BBC stood by Gilligan's story, apparently in the belief that the BBC must not buckle in the face of government pressure.  The involvement of Alistair Campbell, who had been named as the sexer-up in one of Gilligan's stories and who had accused the BBC of having an anti-war agenda, made things worse.  The BBC's directors were remarkably slow to find out that Gilligan's story, transmitted from his home at 6 AM, had not been written down ("scripted"), let alone edited, and that Downing Street had not been warned, as is customary in such cases, that the prime minister was, to all intents and purposes, about to be called a liar on national television.


The BBC ignored, or claimed ignorance, of the opinion expressed in an e-mail from the editor of the Today program on which the story appeared that "our biggest millstone has been his [Gilligan's] loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of his phraseology" and never brought this message to the attention of the Board of Governors.  They apparently did not seriously consider making the apology that Downing Street was demanding.  Even in a statement of July 20, expressing regrets for Kelly's death, the BBC took the opportunity to reaffirm its position.  And, "We continue to believe we were right to place Dr. Kelly's views in the public domain."


At the Hutton inquiry, however, Gilligan himself admitted to a number of erroneous statements, including the attribution to Kelly of the view that the government knew the forty-five-minutes story to be false, but it was too late. After the Hutton Report was published, the BBC issued a public apology, and the chairman of its Board of Governors and its director-general resigned.  Gilligan also, belatedly and defiantly, resigned.  It was a very sad day for a great institution.


Well, maybe so.  But…


Hutton's complete exoneration of the government is in strong contrast to his treatment of the BBC and requires more careful examination.  It was undoubtedly true that the intelligence chiefs and ministers, to a man, confirmed that they had approved the substance of the government dossier and had no objection to the strong language desired by Downing Street; it was still consistent with the intelligence available to the Joint Intelligence Committee.  Hutton ignored as irrelevant the fact that the conclusions of the dossier were flatly wrong, something that will occur to any informed reader of his report, and that has forced Tony Blair to appoint a commission to inquire into the failure of British intelligence.   Like the BBC, and like some parts of the US government and press, the intelligence chiefs seem to have paid little attention to differing opinions in their middle ranks


Indeed.  But all this wasn’t about what is true.  It was about what you say, and when you say it, and to whom, about what is true.


It’s all quite depressing.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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